There can be little doubt that these are relatively tough times in the UK, and the minds of many are focussed on how best to make progress when it feels like everything is being cut.
But most of those who are thinking about it are the professionals, who control budgets for the delivery of services or front-line service providers trying to figure out how to stop things getting dangerous as they are stretched further and further. The assumption is that the job remains to be done, that they are the ones to do it, and they need to figure what they are going to do to make the best adjustments that they can.
But supposing they took a different tack? Suppose they invited citizens in to explore the challenges that they face and how they might be met, how ordinary citizens might be able to use their resources, time, knowledge, skills and sometimes perhaps cash, to help?
So, for example, we might
- invite citizens to explore issues around poverty in an area, and what they might be able to do about it. And we might end up with something like Disrupting Poverty in Leeds
- ask people to think about what they can do about empty properties in Leeds and end up with something like Empty Homes
- ask residents to explore how they can make a city more playful and end up with something like Playful Leeds
What might happen if we asked local people to step up and see what they might be able to do about other issues facing them, their loved ones and their neighbours like:
- dementia care
- sports development
- elderly care
- crime reduction
- economic development and supporting start-up businesses
- educational attainment
- resettlement of offenders
- suicide reduction
- mental health promotion
- and so on….
Or we can just bundle these issues up into performance related contracts, attach our 56 pages of terms and conditions, develop it into a multi-million pound contract and pump it through the procurement process?
How might this work out at a local level?
I watched a community psychiatric nurse, working with a third sector service provider, planning home help for an elderly gentleman in the early stages of dementia. He needed help with a weekly shop, food preparation and encouragement to take his medication. Essentially they agreed a piece of business for the third sector to provide this basic support, paid for out of public finance. There was no discussion of the role of neighbours in helping out. No exploration about whether they might be able to manage a weekly shop between them, or set up a meal rota, or ensure a daily visit.
Now I don’t think this was a rare one-off. I think our neighbourhoods are awash with opportunities for local people to engage with each other, to help and be helped, and to learn how to make a real difference to the big and small issues that beset us.
I am not saying that we don’t need specialist public services, of course we do. But we will have to learn to do the basics for ourselves if we want to make progress.
The challenge is how can the funders possibly engage with a civic group that helps it to do something quite remarkable. Because standard forms of procurement and project management are hardly conducive.